NEW DELHI -- The world's largest democracy is set to hold general elections from Apr. 11 to May 19, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a second term in office.
According to analysts, the most likely outcome will be the return of the ruling National Democratic Alliance headed by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, albeit with a reduced majority.
The 68-year-old leader remains the most popular choice for prime minister, with Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi a distant second in opinion polls.
Support for Modi appears to have been galvanized by airstrikes on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistani-controlled territory on Feb. 26, following a suicide bombing in the Indian-administered part of the disputed Kashmir region.
The opposition has accused Modi and his party of politicizing the issue ahead of the election, and has repeatedly criticized the administration for alleged corruption in a deal to procure Rafale fighter jets from France.
Why is this election important?
This colossal democratic exercise will be spread over several phases, and gives nearly 900 million people the chance to pass judgment on the Modi government's policies. These include the demonetization of high-value bank notes in November 2016 and the rollout of a goods and services tax the following July, both of which caused widespread disruption to the economy.
It is also a test for the INC, which ruled the country for most the period after independence from British rule in 1947. The prospects of a strong showing have been boosted by victories in recent state elections in the BJP strongholds of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. While campaigning for the regional polls, the INC focused on issues such as growing agricultural distress and unemployment in a bid to prize voters away from the BJP, and is expected to do the same in the run-up to the general election.
In addition to highlighting February's military strikes, the BJP is expected to focus on welfare schemes it has launched for the poor. These include a health insurance project covering 40% of the country's population of over 1.25 billion, a program to support the incomes of small-scale farmers, as well as employment and education quotas for economically disadvantaged groups.
Who are the main contenders?
Modi's BJP, which has ideological links with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers Organization, and the INC, which is considered moderate, are the two groups vying for power. Both head alliances made up of several regional parties.
The BJP-led NDA was formed in 1998 and has some 40 member organizations, most prominent among them are All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the south and Shiv Sena in the west.
The INC-headed United Progressive Alliance is a coalition of around 30 parties that was formed after the 2004 general election. Regional groups such as Rashtriya Janata Dal and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in the east are some of its members.
The BJP's platform centers on transparent governance, strengthening the economy, social provision and women's empowerment. The INC is campaigning on a similar anti-corruption ticket, as well as the promotion of small enterprises, and the provision of food and security for all.
What is the process?
Elections are being held for the 545-member lower house of parliament. All but two, which are nominated by the country's president, are elected directly by the people. The full term of the house is five years, and citizens aged 18 and above are eligible to vote.
A party or coalition needs to secure 272 seats to form a government. The BJP managed to secure a simple majority on its own for the first time in the last elections in 2014, when it won 282 seats. The INC has managed to do so seven times since elections were first held in 1951.
Working in a coalition may not help in pushing through a bold policy agenda, but the BJP managed to do so with demonetization and the GST. It also means the administration constantly needs to pay heed to junior partners' demands.
The upper house is made up of 245 members -- 233 are elected by members of state legislative assemblies, hence the importance of regional polls, and 12 are nominated by the president. A bill requiring amendments to the Constitution must also be passed by both houses before it becomes a law.
Who is expected to win?
According to an online poll conducted by the Times Group between Feb. 11 and Feb. 20, 83% of the 200,000 respondents said a Modi-led NDA government was the most-likely outcome, while 9% believed it would be an INC-led coalition.
The survey also showed 84% saying they would prefer Modi as prime minister, while 8% favored Gandhi.
Despite the morale-boosting victories in state polls last year, support for Gandhi appears to have waned after the airstrikes last month.
What happens if there is a change of power?
In this seemingly unlikely scenario, most of Modi's welfare policies are expected to remain in place.
On the foreign policy front, there could be "some changes, especially giving priority to the Third World, including the Non-Aligned Movement," said Shamshad Ahmad Khan, visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies. India was a co-founder of the 120-member movement.
He also added that the relations India has developed with Japan and Southeast Asia based on "mutual and cooperative" partnerships are expected to remain unchanged, as are ties with the U.S. and China. "There are many variables that determine bilateral relations, which are not personality-driven."